By Adina Ba
Cameron with one of the first scholarship recipients Joseph Gordon
Cameron currently works for the NBA/WNBA as a Senior Manager for their Marketing Partnerships division. A year out of college at the age of 24, in April of 2001, Cameron founded a non-profit organization called Giving Opportunties To Others (GOTO). GOTO offers underprivileged middle school students (in NYC and Boston) the opportunity to attend an art and music summer camp for three years in a row. Over the past eight years, GOTO has funded over 200 camp experiences. In addition, each graduate of GOTO has the chance to pair with a young professional mentor. All of the efforts needed to make this organization operate are completed by the leadership of young professionals. To date, over 400 young professionals have volunteered with GOTO on an ongoing basis leading in committees focused on development, events, marketing, scholarship selection and mentoring efforts.
Please share the story of what first inspired you to found the non-profit organization GOTO?
I graduated Princeton University in 2000 and my first job was through Princeton’s Project 55 program which supports graduates to enter the workforce in non-traditional roles. Because I had a strong love of arts growing up, I decided that I wanted to work for an arts-based non-profit organization. This is one of the best decisions I could have made.
I joined Midori and Friends, founded by musician Midori Goto. This organization raised money for music programs in public schools in NYC. My official role was Grant Writer, but I got to work in many facets of the organization.
I grew up in Bermuda, went to a good high school in Canada, and music was a big part of my education. My first year with Midori was an eye-opening adventure. I learned hands on about the lack of resources in NYC for arts and music education, and that’s when GOTO came to me.
My experience at Midori taught me how non-profit organizations work. The kids who benefit from Midori love the arts. If I had grown up in NYC like these kids, I wouldn’t have been able to benefit from consistent music education. If I had learned an instrument during the school year, I wouldn’t be able to take it home with me or practice over the summer. When I graduated from college, many of my peers were starting their own companies, it seemed normal to me at that time that I could run my own organization.
Did you have a mentor along the way?
Rainah Berlowitz who graduated from Princeton before me in 1998 was my Project 55 mentor. When I was working at Midori, Rainah had been working at another non-profit organization, Education through Music for 3 years. Sitting at a diner across from the Carnegie Deli when I first told him my idea, he gave me all the reasons and encouragement why I should start GOTO. I was pretty excited. It meant a lot that Rainah was so supportive. Rainah has volunteered since day 1 and is currently the President of GOTO NY.
Tell us about the beginning of GOTO?
One of the things I never underestimated in getting GOTO rolling was getting friends and acquaintances involved. I wasn’t shy at all in asking for help. The proposition was to start an organization to send kids to summer camp. We were going to raise the money by throwing parties. We didn’t know the work it would take, but we were very determined.
We formed a board of 5 people who were longtime friends. For anybody who’s excited about volunteering, and contributing or giving back, the best thing that you can do is to find friends that want to do it with you, it makes the experience that much more fun. We approached our work as friends, really proud of what we were creating.
It was really important that kids could go to summer arts and music camp for 3 years in a row. We couldn’t fail because we’d fail the children. The first year, we started with eight students. Our three year per student goal showed our seriousness to volunteers, potential donors, and arts coordinators. It was important to us to reward these children and provide a sense of stability to them.
We started our parties in the summer of 2001 and ran them throughout the year, including one scheduled for September 13 (two days after 9/11) that was cancelled. GOTO could have derailed at that time, but it didn’t. We even closed out the year with two more successful events.
Besides your volunteers, did you have any other resources in getting GOTO off the ground?
After the first few months, we had raised enough money to really make this happen. Then it was time to find a summer camp to partner with. It took a lot of effort to find the best fit organization with the most enthusiasm. Apple Farm was our answer. It is really a rural farm, different than any experience these kids can have in a big city. Beyond being the best camp for our students, Apple Farm was also very supportive in answering all questions to prospective students and their parents. They were an invaluable resource.
GOTO’s organization is quite unique in how it is run. Can you give an overview of the role that young professionals play in executing the various components of the organization?
The board loved that the organization was being run by volunteer young professionals. Many people straight out of college may not be leading anything in their day job. We gave these young professionals the opportunities to lead. Seminars and school are vehicles to pay for experience. Volunteering is a way to get hands on direct experience and make a difference at the same time.
What tools did you have to get started?
The only thing we had were our volunteers and managing volunteers can be difficult, there’s no paycheck to dangle in front of them. The tools I had were: leading by example, motivation, and communication. We learned a whole lot and I am now a better manager for it, and a better employee. That’s the type of volunteer opportunities that we provide. There’s nothing wrong for people to show up one weekend of the year to pick up trash. Sometimes organizations just need people to show up and do a specific task. But we ask a lot more than that, and our volunteers deliver.
What is one of your greatest accomplishments for GOTO?
Our students are talented in the arts in a school system that doesn’t allow them to fully express their joy/passion for the arts, that’s a big side of themselves that they’re sheltering for the majority of the year. This stunts their confidence; they’re not able to be themselves. With summer camp, they blossom, they become themselves. When they return to school, their confidence remains.
We are very fortunate that these kids are already awesome. We are not making them into anything other than what they are.
What advice would you give to someone just starting to think about volunteering in their community?
Whatever role that you’re hoping to volunteer, big or small, I think the most important thing for a volunteer is to do is stay committed to the task that they have taken on. The non-profit may not have the resources and any volunteer contribution is vital for overall success.
Please share your experiences of working full-time and doing such impactful volunteer work? Do you have any advice to others who may be in a similar situation?
When I first started, someone gave me good advice. I was doing a lot of the work myself. I was told to share the work. I was protective of what may happen if I wasn’t in control of everything. But it’s important to spread all the work among different people. It may take more time to get formed the way you see it, but in the long run, you’re going to have a greater impact, and not burn yourself out.
We volunteer, give money, and have some meetings after hours, but it doesn’t feel like work. We have a neat group of volunteers, they’re fun to hang around with and fun to work with. I have no problem spending my time out of work on GOTO related things. It’s just my perspective, but we’re not just picking up trash, we are running an organization that does good work and it feels good.
What response would you give to someone who has never volunteered before and their argument is that it would take too much work/energy to create change in our communities or our world?
There are young professionals out there who have great education and great jobs, and they may still be lacking something more. If you’re in that situation, you should try to volunteer and do something challenging in that way. GOTO makes an impact that lives on in our students. Even if we have a mundane task to do, it’s for the overall benefit of the program and there is gratification in that. Everything that we do helps. Once you commit to a cause, it is an act of selflessness.
Many people don’t start thinking about philanthropy until they are older. If you are a recent graduate, you have all the ingredients to support a cause like GOTO. The only currency you need is energy, ingenuity, and connections.
Check GOTO out at www.thegotogroup.org